Innovation requires humility and courage21 November, 2014 / Articles
Most public companies hit a growth wall after exhausting the strategies of cost-cutting, stock buybacks, and continuous acquisitions to generate needed earnings per share. That leaves innovation—the creation of new differentiating value propositions—as the untapped value creation avenue. Unfortunately, innovation remains a struggle for many businesses for the reasons stated in my earlier piece, “Why Is Innovation So Hard?,” and because companies can’t innovate unless their people innovate. In this piece I want to focus on what enables people to become innovators—those who, as noted psychologist Abraham Maslow stated, “do not cling to the familiar.”
Innovators are people who can unlock the cognitive and emotional “chains” that hem most of us into the familiar: our mental models (existing beliefs, assumptions, and views of the world), ego, and fears. Unlocking those chains liberates innovators to let go of the comfortable and familiar and journey into the land of uncertainty and the unknown—the land of innovation. Making that journey requires humility and personal courage.
Highly innovative and consistently successful businesses like IDEO, Google, Intuit, Bridgewater Associates, W.L. Gore & Associates, and Pixar Animated Studios have cultures and processes that encourage and enable people to unlock their chains so they can imagine, explore, experiment, and think critically. These companies encourage childlike curiosity and taking ownership of challenges with the mindset of a scientist who is good at not knowing. All are idea meritocracies that devalue hierarchy and value candor.
Along the way to adulthood, however, most of us lost our childlike curiosity and our candor because we became consumed with being liked, being “smart”—which to us meant being right and not making mistakes—and protecting our self-image so as not to lose face. Innovators, however, can’t be consumed with always being right and can’t avoid mistakes and failures. Innovation, as a process, requires failure. Exploration into the unknown, by definition, produces surprises. To become innovators, we have to develop a different mental model of “smart.” That requires us to accept the science of learning, which illuminates the cognitive and emotional proclivities that can inhibit our learning.